Brewing beer is a democratic endeavor. Given resources and time, any skilled brewer can craft a bitter India pale ale or a coal-colored stout. But it takes more than talent to create a Trappist ale, an honor reserved for select pious men. Globally, there are more than 170 Trappist monasteries. To earn money for their orders, monks make and sell goods such as clothing, cheese, and, at a handful of abbeys, some of the world’s rarest, most revered beer.
As a term “Trappist” doesn’t refer to a single beer. Instead, Trappist ales run the stylistic gamut. Some are straw-toned thirst-quenchers, while others are dry and bitter. Trappist ales can be golden and candy sweet or opulent, intricate, and darker than midnight, with fragrances of baking spices and dark fruit. Above all, many Trappist ales are belly warmers, boasting elevated booze levels (typically 7 to 11 percent alcohol by volume) that ensure you’ll sip them nice and slow.
What unites these dissimilar beers is their provenance. To receive the Trappist designation, the beer must be brewed within a Trappist abbey under the order’s supervision. In addition, most proceeds must be earmarked for charity. The select club counts only seven Trappist breweries—six in Belgium, including Chimay, which also makes its own cheese, and Koningshoeven (La Trappe) in the Netherlands. (Many commercial Belgian and American breweries have released their own takes on Trappist suds. You’ll often see them identified as abbey beers.)
When pairing Trappist beers with cheese, the ales’ unique, varied flavors mean there’s no one-fromage-fits-all solution. Instead, follow these simple guidelines. Light, crisp golden ales (called blonde or blond), such as the version from La Trappe, are matched to a medium aged jack cheese or nutty gouda. By contrast, a rich, malty dubbel, such as Rochefort 8, goes great with a washed-rind, abbey-style cheese or a Morbier. A sweet, strong, somewhat fruity tripel, such as Westmalle’s, is superb with a rich triple cream such as Saint André. And a malty, superpotent quadrupel such as Westvleteren’s, is suited to an assertive aged cheese; for instance, a mature cheddar.
But why read about these beers, when you can experience them? To sample the monks’ work, try the seven singular ales listed above, one from each monastery. Drinking one might raise your spirit.
Achel 8° Blonde: The smallest Trappist brewery is also its newest—sort of. Achel stopped brewing during World War I, resuming brewing operations in 1998. The monks’ crown jewel is the pale 8° Blonde, a lightly filtered ale with a grassy, bready scent and a spicy flavor that’s downright refreshing—8 percent alcohol be damned.
Chimay White Tripel: Crack the tripel’s trademark snow-white cap and you’ll release a yeasty, hop-forward aroma with notes of juniper and orange. Poured into a chalice, the tripel presents a cloudy, golden body and a cloudlike head. It drinks dry and gently bitter, with a grassy aspect and very little sweetness.
Koningshoeven La Trappe Quadrupel: The sole Trappist brewery in the Netherlands began brewing beer in 1884. The Dutch abbey’s ales range from a light blonde to this sturdy quad with a bouquet of dates and toffee. Expect sweet, full-bodied flavors with a slight tart-cherry detour.
Orval Trappist Ale: You’ll spot Orval by its unique bottle, which resembles a curvaceous bowling pin. Inside sits a generously hopped elixir that, when consumed fresh, offers up spicy bitterness and a dry character. Given time, the bitterness fades, and Brettanomyces yeast adds a funky, pleasing component.
Rochefort 10 Quadrupel: Pouring a deep leather brown, this quadrupel smells of licorice and sun-baked dark fruit. Despite the 11.3 percent alcohol, 10 remains as creamy and quaffable as café au lait. Expect flavors of figs, spice cake, and caramel.
Westmalle Dubbel: The roots of this brown ale date to 1856, when the abbey began brewing a dark ale. That recipe, updated in 1926, serves as the basis for this ruddy-brown delight. The dubbel drinks creamy, with a nose of nuts, raisins, and licorice. The flavors follow suit, with a supersmooth drinkability.
Westvleteren 12 Quadrupel: The “Westy 12” is one of the world’s most sought-out ales. To secure it you must telephone to reserve a case, which can be bought only at the abbey. Your efforts will be rewarded by a balanced, effervescent indulgence with flavors that flit from raisins to chocolate, plums, and brown sugar.